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New Collection Online: the Italian Americans in the West Project

Men in western work cloths mounted on horses pose in front of wooden ranch buildings.

This early photograph of the Delmue ranch in Lincoln County, Nevada was among family photographs documented by fieldworkers. No date, ca. early 20th century. Copy photo by Blanton Owen.

Italians in the United States are commonly associated with communities in cities in the east. But during the course of research on ranching culture in Nevada between 1978 and 1982, American Folklife Center researchers met Italian American ranchers and found architectural evidence of Italian settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italians, like many others, responded to the prospect of land for settlement and joined the westward migration during the mid- to late 1800s. There seemed to still be opportunities to document evidence of Italian settlement of the past as well as Italian communities of the present.

A man stands in a field with rows of crops.

Virgil Criscola stands in his field of Walla Walla sweet onions near Walla Walla, Washington. Photo by Jens Lund, 1989.

The Italian Americans in the West Project collection was developed to help add to a richer understanding of Italian settlement in the United States. Field research was conducted from 1989 through 1991 and was directed by American Folklife Center staff. During the course of the field research, teams of folklife researchers explored the ways Italian Americans have defined their identity as a cultural group in the past and present. Subject areas included public and private aspects of expression, foodways, occupations, festivals, and vernacular architecture. Multiple research sites afforded the opportunity to map cultural intersections of ethnic and regional history. The sites were chosen on the basis of cultural and economic definitions of the West, in communities where Italian Americans have long been associated with the distinctive economies of the regions.  A book of essays related to the project, Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian-American Folklife in the West edited by David Taylor and John Alexander Williams, is available for free online from Google Books.

Fieldworkers documented a wide variety of occupations. Research took place in the agricultural community of Gilroy, California; the commercial fishing town of San Pedro, California; the steel mill town of Pueblo, Colorado; several small mining and ranching communities in eastern and central Nevada; several mining towns in Carbon County, Utah; and the agricultural region of Walla Walla, Washington. For example, folklorist Jens Lund did research in the agricultural communities around Walla Walla, Washington, and met Virgil Criscola, an onion farmer who grew Walla Walla sweet onions. These large sweet onions are descended from Corsican onions brought to the United States by Italian immigrants.

While documenting the fishing community in San Pedro, California, fieldworkers were able to accompany a crew on the St. George II to experience a fishing trip. The fishermen, Andrea Briguglio, Phillip Mazzela, Albina Royal, Mike Vuoso, and John Royal were very helpful in showing the workings of the boat and the process of fishing. Folklorist Russell Frank made a recording on the boat with Mike Vuoso explaining what was happening and ambient sounds of the boat in the background. Listen to it in the player below.

The adventure on the St. George II led to another, as fisherman Andrea Briguglio had just built a traditional oven, a forno, in his backyard and invited the fieldworkers to come witness the first firing. A forno is an outdoor oven used mainly for making breads and baked pasta. In this case Briguglio made pizza and gave his children a chance to see how a forno works. The fieldworkers sought opportunities to document traditional events centering around food. The collection also includes documentation of wine making and wine tastings, making baked goods, and a barbecue.

The rich religious traditions of Italian Americans were documented in several communities as the fieldworkers arranged their time to be present for festivals, processions, and celebrations. The fieldworkers were especially interested in the ways these religious expressions are also expressions of Italian identity. Italian American festivals sometimes coincided with Saint’s days marked by processions through the community.

Sicilian immigrants who migrated to Pueblo, Colorado, brought with them a tradition of St. Joseph’s Day tables. Catholics may pray to St. Joseph, the patron saint of families, to ask for help for a family member who is ill, injured, or in difficulty. They may promise to do a charitable act if the prayers are answered. In the Sicilian tradition, the offering is a feast to honor St. Joseph on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. Anyone may attend, so the table is a gift is to the wider community. Food is also given to charity. The centerpiece of these celebrations of a hardship overcome is a table filled with food and decorated with elaborate bread sculptures, some with fig filling, in shapes with religious meaning, such as crosses, lambs, and wreaths. The fieldwork team was able to document one St. Joseph’s table event at the home of Tony and Josephine Martellero. As the fieldworkers discovered, this is a large undertaking, with family and friends helping out to cook and welcome guests.

There is a lot to experience in the Italian Americans in the West Project collection, so begin exploring at the link and learn more about the many traditions and contributions of Italian Americans in the Western United States.

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